TAMPA — Since last season’s disappointing 12-19 finish – and 14th-place status in the Big East Conference – so much is different for the University of South Florida's men's basketball team.
Big things are expected from a six-player recruiting class.
There’s a new league – the 10-team American Athletic Conference.
Stan Heath shook up his coaching staff, bringing in three new assistants.
But some things haven’t changed.
It was only two seasons ago that USF earned an NCAA tournament bid, winning two postseason games and falling painfully short of reaching the Sweet 16. Senior forward Victor Rudd and junior point guard Anthony Collins are the only two remaining Bulls who played in those games.
“I remember how fun that was,’’ Collins said. “It wasn’t that long ago, but it still seems like I’ve been in college for a long time. We want to get back to those days.’’
Despite all the changes at USF, if the Bulls are to make a run toward the postseason, Collins and Rudd undoubtedly will lead the way.
“Those guys have a strong, strong mindset,’’ Heath said. “I’m seeing growth in both of them in terms of becoming strong leaders. They set the example. They don’t just talk about what it takes to reach the highest level. They lived it and experienced it.
“They have tasted success. I know we were all disappointed last year. And I know how hungry and motivated they are to get where we were two years ago.’’
There’s early season uncertainty surrounding Collins, 14th nationally in assists last season (6.5 per game), who has been unable to fully practice for about a month. After surgery to remove an inflamed bursa sac in his left knee, the swelling hasn’t subsided and his status remains unknown for Saturday night’s home opener against Tennessee Tech.
If necessary, the Bulls are confident that point guard duties can be handled in the short term by junior-college transfer Corey Allen Jr., and freshman Josh Heath, the coach’s son.
“I feel good about this team,’’ Rudd said. “I’ll feel even better when AC gets back.’’
Last season, Rudd led USF in scoring (12.3 points per game) and rebounding (6.9), but was often playing out of position due to the team’s lack of inside presence. He felt a mounting responsibility and sometimes tried to do too much.
Seven times, he had double-digit rebounding games. But in an attempt to generate offense for the Bulls, who averaged just 58.8 points per game, he also launched 141 3-point attempts and made only 28.4 percent.
Heath was encouraged during a scrimmage last month when Rudd scored 26 points in 30 minutes on 10 of 19 shooting.
“Most of the shots were from 15 feet and in,’’ Heath said. “He was very effective, very efficient. He has done a lot for us in two years, but his game has evolved to the point where he’s going to play to his strengths.’’
Rudd said he worked all summer on improving his shot selection. Even more important, he said, is setting the tone as a leader.
He’s glad to have freshman big men John Egbunu (6-foot-10, 230 pounds) and Chris Perry (6-8, 245). But he wants them to play the correct way.
“I met everybody on the first day when they worked out,’’ Rudd said. “I don’t want them to slide by with anything. If I see them getting away with stuff, I’ll step in and say, ‘Hey, let me show you how to do that. Let me show you how to guard the post.’
“They’re receptive to learning, so I’m excited about that.’’
Rudd said he’s also excited about playing another season with Collins. They have developed a sixth sense, a non-verbal communication where a simple nod or look can lead to an alley-oop pass and a dunk.
“AC is the anchor of everything we do offensively and defensively,’’ Rudd said. “He demands excellence from everyone and he can do it without yelling. I think he takes losses the worst of anybody, so he doesn’t want something like last season to happen around here again.
“We talk about (the 2012 NCAA tournament team) a little bit, but we don’t want to dwell on it too much. ...We’ve got the guys now to get back (to the postseason).’’
To gauge the fortunes of USF, you first look to the leadership and improved shooting of Rudd, the health and playmaking ability of Collins.
Rudd and Collins.
Collins and Rudd.
So much is different. But some things haven’t changed at all.